The Ugly eBook


Glasses On Old Book by Jim Mahoney

Glasses On Old Book by Jim Mahoney

I’ve mentioned book making debates before, but today’s debate of mention is the debate of whether or not an ebook should be pretty or not. “Keep it simple!” I read the other day. “You’re putting words on a screen not trying to make some Renaissance work of art!”

I normally have nothing to say about it. I have my own book making philosophy and so long as I’m able to continue to make functional eBooks my way in my own pursuit of happiness, you can feel how you wish. But lately, my pursuit of eBook happiness has been compromised because of that earlier philosophy. And Smashwords – gods how I love them – is at the front of this problem.

Let’s look at the history of bookmaking in a nutshell. In the early days, when books were hand written, you didn’t just put words on a piece of vellum. You were expected to be an artist. Illumination is the word of the day: it has nothing to do with light-bulbs. In other words, books were a work of art.

With words.

It’s easy to say that eBooks have a different history as they mostly started out in text files with limited formatting capabilities. Yes. Admittedly eBooks have a more plain beginning – aside from those beautifully illuminated books I saw on the internet for free back in the 1990’s… oh wait. I guess that means that eBooks started out as a work of art.  But overall, yes, they didn’t have the ABILITY to be pretty.

Moving ahead to today’s eBook revolution, we get a lot of people who want to take the two beginnings to extremes. We’ve got “fixed layout” epubs with pages that mimic a real book with background images and great looking magazines. We’ve got boring-looking epubs that are words and words only. No variation in type. No indentations. Just block paragraphs. And neither camp wants to see Romeo and Juliet wed.

Smashwords is at the forefront of this “keep it simple” revolution because of all the people in their early days who came to them with badly formatted books that just flat looked terrible. Readers warned other readers not to buy a Smashwords book because of how horrible they looked. That warning still gets spread today – interestingly enough – despite Smashwords tightening their formatting regulations to extreme measures. So extreme you’re not allowed to mix block paragraphs with first line indents anymore. You’re not allowed to have a line border beneath your headers for aesthetic affect. If your eBook has a mix of styles that require the font be one size off from another style, your book stands a high chance of being rejected – even if you have a good reason for the difference. Their Style “Guide” is their god, and if something is off then you must not have followed it.

Now with Smashwords, you can usually contact them when a problem arises and plead your case. They look like they’re expecting you to build cookie cutter houses, but they do make leeway if you can communicate properly and plead your case. Usually. But their guidelines remain a very good example of the philosophy: keep it simple. And ugly.

On the other hand, the push to make books more and more fancy is creating problems for not just book makers but book readers. In order to see some of the fancier children’s book, you have to have the latest in ebook reading equipment. That costs money. In order to make some of the fancier children’s books and, lately, to get published with Apple you have to catch up and learn fancier coding. Even if your book is nothing but a few chapters and all you want is maybe a few dancing demons at the bottom of the final paragraph.

The biggest things I’ve noticed about this debate is that it’s not being fought between readers. It’s being fought between makers. The eBook builders.

I think there’s a solution to this debate. All we have to do is: look at what the readers have to say about it. They’re the ones that are paying the builders money when they buy the eBook. They’re the ones that are set to try and enjoy their eBook experience. They’re the ones who ultimately decides who reads that fancy or plain book.

Here is what I’ve noticed when looking at reader input regarding various books at various different times starting from a few years ago to now:

  • Readers really hate ugly books. Ugly doesn’t always mean badly-formatted either. Ugly means just plain headers, barely a paragraph separation, single-spaced paragraphs, and basically as plain as plain can get.
  • In fact, readers will warn other readers away from buying that ugly book.
  • Some readers do like the fancy new books with the pretty backgrounds, but many readers can’t read them for a variety of reasons including they can’t afford the fancy new ereading equipment or that fancy book is priced too high.
  • Some readers find the super-fanciness too distracting.
  • Readers gravitate to books that look pleasing to the eye but are an easy to read experience, such as the way some magazines are formatted in the print world or how illustrated books were formatted back in the 60’s and 70’s: with an illustration floating here and there and the words spaced evenly with paragraphs nice and tidy.
  • Readers who purchase a book that’s formatted pleasingly tend to overlook that formatting because their minds and hearts go straight where you want it to go: the material. They take perfect looks for granted.

This is where my book-formatting philosophy comes from: the marketing value of a well-formatted eBook. You’re not worried about impressing your reader too much in most cases. You also don’t want to chase them away. You want your book to please them enough that they’ll tell their friends and recommend that book, and possibly even you. And so far from what I’ve seen: the middle road has it.

By necessity, Smashwords has it wrong. Companies that are trying to get too fancy also might have it wrong. The middle road is the best, most marketable road. Ebook formatting isn’t just about neatness and functionality. It’s about giving your reader, who is picking up your volume for a multitude of reasons including entertainment, an enjoyable experience. Like with Goldilocks and the Three Bears, one eBook is too fancy and one eBook is too plain. But if you figure out when too much is too much and too little is too little, your eBook can be just right.

DISCLAIMER: “Too fancy” does, of course, exclude certain picture books, children’s books, and even some magazines.

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